The movie version of "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" manages to put flesh and bone on the stick figures in Jeff Kinney's wildly successful cartoon novel without altering the book's mildly subversive comic tone.
That fidelity plays mostly for the good, though the book's moron-plagued, middle-school protagonist — a sixth-grade boy, who, let's be honest, comes off as kind of self-absorbed, lazy and petty — loses some of his appeal when viewed under the harsh light of the camera.
What's funny on the page is less sympathetic on the screen, meaning the wimpy kid who's going to win the hearts and minds of most moviegoers is not the title character, but his best buddy, the I-gotta-be-me super-nerd Rowley.
Unlike Rowley, Greg (Zachary Gordon) is obsessed with being one of the cool kids as he enters the "glorified holding pen" known as middle school. Greg covets immediate status among his peers, but doesn't want to put in any actual work to win that recognition.
So he tries out various activities, which he sees as "rackets," in an effort to move up the popularity scale at his school. Best friend Rowley (Robert Capron), meanwhile, shows up on the first day of class wearing a serape and sporting a bowl haircut.
Then, after school, Rowley shouts across the courtyard, "Hey, Greg! Wanna play?", breaching middle school etiquette by failing to use the proper, codified language (it's "hang out," not "play") and for displaying undue enthusiasm.
Greg begins to believe that he's either going to have to remake Rowley or lose him as a friend altogether. What Greg doesn't understand is that Rowley, with his passion for self-expression, has an authenticity that will eventually win the kind of acceptance Greg so desperately desires.
Which brings us to the movie's main problem: The Wimpy Kid is a wet blanket. True, that's always been the conceit behind Kinney's series, currently at four books and counting. Being 12 is an awkward, imperfect, in-between time. Few people remember middle school fondly.
But in transferring the clean, precise humor of Kinney's illustrations and prose to the big-screen, the material loses just a bit of its charm. All the highlights from the first book have been kept — the moldy mysterious cheese lying on the basketball court (you don't want The Cheese Touch!), the Zoo-Wee Mama comic creation, the Halloween night trick-or-treating misadventures — and they're presented in the same episodic structure.
Director Thor Freudenthal and two teams of screenwriters have also shoehorned in a girl, a too-cool-for-school seventh-grader named Angie (Chloe Grace Moretz), attempting, one supposes, to broaden the material's appeal. The effect is negligible.
"Wimpy Kid" remains very much a story about boys taking their first tentative steps toward becoming men. It's a journey fraught with embarrassment and small-mindedness. If you're lucky, the movie suggests, you might have a friend like Rowley to help you get by.
"Diary of a Wimpy Kid," a 20th Century Fox release, is rated PG for some rude humor and language. Running time: 91 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G — General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG — Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 — Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R — Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.